For full disclosure: I am a Kansas fan so what follows will essentially be the word vomit ramblings of a madman
2nd seeded Kansas bowed out of the NCAA tournament on Sunday to a Stanford team that, while good, was just 5th in the Pac 12 defensively, and yet somehow held one of the best offenses in the country to well under a point per possession. In fact, via the Topkea Capital Journal’s Jesse Newell, Kansas’s .826 PPP was its worst mark of the season and its 37.1% eFG was its second worst.
For starters, this Kansas team struggled against big teams all year. Its worst efforts came against San Diego State, Texas, Villanova, and Stanford, all teams with big men inside and good rim protection. Perry Ellis shot 55% from two, but rather than taking open jumpers, where he shot 42% this year, he repeatedly barreled into the taller, more stout Stanford big men and shot 3-10 from two as a result. Andrew Wiggins, as talented, gifted, and smart as he is, struggles with ballhandling, and finished with four turnovers.
And that Kansas press. That frenetic, hectic, turnover forcing Kansas press that the Jayhawks unleashed on the Cardinal, the press that almost led to a win….where was that earlier? Where was it all season, when a listless Kansas defense came to life late in losses to Kansas State and West Virginia, only because Bill Self deployed the press. With Stanford having no true point guard out there, and with nominal point guard Chasson Randle committing 7 turnovers, where was that press earlier? Stanfords big men were a lot of things, but comfortable against the press they were not.
And then there were the point guard issues: Junior point guard Naadir Tharpe made just 2 of his 8 shots, and had an equal number of turnovers and assists. He also struggled defensively, fouling out late. Yet Conner Frankamp, who beat the buzzer in the first half with a three, went 4-7 from deep in the game, couldn’t play in the second half due to supposed issues defensively. While I don’t disagree that his small stature is a problem on defense, so is Kansas scoring just .826 points per trip. As a general rule, I don’t like trying to shoot over a zone to beat it, but there’s no doubt Frankamp’s presence opens things up on that side of the floor for Perry Ellis, Andrew Wiggins, or whomever to take his midrange jumper.
For all of the talk of point guard issues, or Wiggins not being aggressive, or the turnovers, what sunk Kansas wasn’t any of those. It wasn’t even an opponent bombing away from three, as Stanford didn’t make one all game. It was shooting just 33% on layups. Layups! Stanford’s great interior defensive play nonwithstanding, Kansas ran an offense designed to get a lot of shots at the rim, got a lot of shots at the rim, and didn’t make them.
Kansas is Kansas, so they will reload next year. Cliff Alexander, maybe the best player in the class, and Kelly Oubre, maybe the best wing in the class, join what should be a veteran group, and if Joel Embiid pulls an unexpected move and comes back to Lawrence, the Jayhawks will be on the short list of Final Four favorites.
But those issues will still remain. Can Naadir Tharpe defend well enough for him to get the majority of minutes at point guard? Or will his up and down play doom Kansas to another early exit? Can Wayne Selden improve his jump shot and his defense enough to justify the significant hype surrounding his recruitment? Will a group of returning guards such as Conner Frankamp, Frank Mason, and Brannen Greene, be a little easier to work with than their Freshman versions?
None of it will matter, though, if Kansas stays stubborn. Late in the second half, the ball bounced to Naadir Tharpe at the top of the key. Rather than taking the open three, he barreled into the lane, and turned it over. Bill Self’s offense is a wonderful work of art, but being able to get the ball to the high post or to get open looks from three would have helped multiple times this year. And, though Bill Self says he hates to run the press because it gives up easy baskets, it sure would have helped to jump start the offense, and could have led to a win.
Kansas fans have little to complain about. They’ve won more NCAA tournament games than anyone else this century, and they have won 10 straight conference championships. However, in the one game lottery of the NCAA tournament, it’s helpful to be able to win games as many ways as possible. Too often this year Kansas went with plan A, and when plan A didn’t work, there was no plan B. It’s important to remember things could have been much worse, and Kansas was without arguably its best player, but they had a golden road to the Elite 8, and Sunday they watched it all vanish.